Tag Archives: ritual

Parashat Sh’mini: The Holy Power of Hands

I have two tales about hands.

The first concerns the hands of my college president. When we ordain our rabbis and cantors at the Hebrew Union College — an annual event, scheduled this year in just a few weeks’ time — our president lays his hands on each candidate’s head or shoulders.

In theory, the idea goes back to Deuteronomy 34:9, where we hear of Moses laying hands on Joshua, Moses’s successor. In actuality, rabbinic ordination with the laying on of hands is altogether a modern innovation. But never mind. That’s what we do. The idea is sound, the practice unforgettable.

We call it s’michah, a word also used for sacrifices. The priests of old practiced s’michah — laying hands on the sacrifices before offering them to God. Moses tells Aaron, “This is the thing that God commanded you to do, that God’s presence may appear” (Lev.9:6). But the Torah does not say what “thing” Moses has in mind, so Italian commentator Obadiah Sforno (1475-1550) explains, “It is the laying on of hands.” Hand-laying is as central to Temple sacrifice of old as it is to my college’s ordination today: and for the same reason — not that rabbis and cantors are “sacrifices,” God forbid, but because the touch of human hands is how “God’s presence may appear.”

The second tale of hands comes from a sign I saw the other day: “Need a Handyman? Call me!” As someone who fixes nothing without making it worse, I always need people who are “handy.” Yes, “handy”! They too lay hands on things — hands, however, that mysteriously comprehend the inner life of gaskets, cams, cogs, and cranks. They unmake and remake complex machinery — make the old look like new.

By contrast, my college president’s hands — like the hands of the Temple priest — do absolutely nothing. They just sit there, utterly inert, untrained and unmoving. They are mere vessels for the work that God does through them.

Our Yom Kippur liturgy is insistent on that point: “God reaches out a hand” it says. But God has no actual hands, for God has no body at all. When priests or seminary presidents lay on hands, they do so on behalf of God, that God may reach out through them.

So too, Aaron’s descendants, the kohanim of today, reach out hands to offer the priestly benediction. Many people bless their children that way, too — or, nowadays, increasingly, even one another. In all these cases, the “hands” are not what we call “handy.” They are untrained. They accomplish nothing on their own. The people being blessed do not get put together differently; they are exactly the same as they were before. But there is this difference (a big one): they may sense they have been visited, through those outstretched hands, by the hand of God.

God visits the earth through the magic of human touch, as sacred a thing as there is. Like all things holy, it too is open to misuse — as when we warn, “Hands off,” or feel violated when someone touches us against our will. But also like all things holy, nothing bestows the certainty of hope and comfort better than the human touch, properly applied, by those we love: a friend at our bedside, their hand on our own; a soft embrace when words cannot assuage our pain.

On the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, Michelangelo captured the magic of creation by the hint of two hands touching: the hand of God from whom life flows, and the hand of Adam, the first human being to receive God’s life-giving force. We humans, ever after, can do “what God commanded… so that God’s presence may appear.” We too can lay on hands for blessing.

When explanations only make things worse, when words ring hollow, when we have nothing to say, we can reach out, God-like, feeling hope’s promise flow to those in need. God shows up best in the warming touch where two hands meet.

Why High Holiday Serivces Matter More Than You Might Think

“…Jews are baffled by [services] … Especially on the high holidays, they really don’t know what to make of this great big thick book that everyone is going through rather slowly, often for hours at a time.”

“The High Holidays are the unique message of … the human dream.”

“One should rise at the end of the High Holiday service committed to the proposition that … we are historical moments in the making.”

Parashat Ki Teitsei

The weekly Haftarah is usually related to the Torah portion that it follows, but this week’s Haftarah, Isaiah 54: 1-10, seems different. It is the fifth of seven readings that began after Tisha B’av, as part of a rising crescendo of faith in a better time to come – not a bad lesson these days, with renewed reminders of global warming, genocide in Darfur, and the bankruptcy of American cities.

Instead of Isaiah, Jews once upon a time read Zechariah 9, an even more explicit promise of hope, because of its express guarantee of a messiah who will save us from the terrors of history. Zechariah 9:9 contains the familiar picture of the messiah on a white donkey, an image borrowed by the Gospel of Matthew, who has Jesus ride a donkey for his triumphal entry into Jerusalem. Perhaps, say scholars, it was precisely the Christian use of this verse that prompted the Rabbis to replace the Zechariah reading with the Isaiah passage that we now have.

Well, perhaps. But is that really the way things work? When Christians borrow a Jewish image or idiom, do we Jews abandon it?

I doubt it: For one thing, the image of a messiah riding a donkey shows up in medieval Haggadah illustrations, so we never gave up the image entirely. For another, there is the motsi – the blessing we say over bread. The Talmud interprets “bread” here messianically – the bread God will provide in time to come. Similarly, in the birkat hamazon, the grace after meals, where we praise God for feeding the whole world, it is not that God already does so, but that someday, we trust, God will. Christian theology co-opted the messianic symbolism of bread too: among other things, the Lord’s Prayer requests, “Give us this day our daily bread.” Echoing the Rabbis, Church Fathers call that “the bread of the Kingdom-come,” not the ordinary stuff we hold in our hands or put in our stomachs. Bread also became the central substance of the Eucharist, the ritual that most defines classical Christian faith. Jews didn’t stop saying the motsi or the birkat hamazon on that account.

But wait. Didn’t we drop their messianic meaning?

You might think so, because of how few Jews know what that meaning is. Our ignorance, however, is no reaction to Christianity. It is part of the mistaken notion that no self-respecting modern Jew can entertain matters of religious belief — the very promises that make religion worthwhile in the first place. Most Jews who recite mealtime prayers do so purely out of habit, sometimes mindlessly mumbling through them; others, seeing no point in them, let them lapse – why not, if they have no transcendent significance.

We hardly need to worry about fighting Christian interpretation, which, in any event, is usually just our own, transferred to a Christian context. Our problem today is the ease with which we have settled for practice without meaning — the way we have given up intimations of transcendence.

The seven Haftarah readings of which this week’s passage is the fifth culminates in the promise of Rosh Hashanah: the hope that God’s purposes will someday be realized worldwide – that’s what the shofar is supposed to herald. In this week’s reading, God assures us, “My love will never leave you. My covenant of peace shall never be removed.”

Should we just mumble this through, the way we do the motsi? Or are we willing to consider the possibility that we are born into a world where love can dominate, where we are in covenant with the divine, and where evil and want just might slowly but inexorably be expunged from human experience?

I have trouble believing these things every hour of every day. Who doesn’t? But the Haftarah, the motsi and the birkat hamazon are prayers. Prayer is precisely the medium that punctuates the humdrum and the harrowing with the poetry of possibility.

Ritual is the regularized affirmation of order that matters; Inherited rituals are reminders of the shapes other people saw. Our ancestors saw patterns we should not want to do without. Even the lowly motsi should be a metaphoric means of dreaming in league with God.

B’ha’alotcha: On Ritual, Religion, and Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder

Freud did not have our sedra specifically in mind when he wrote his treatises on religion. He would have pointed to its demand that the Passover sacrifice be done “in accordance with all its rules and rites” as evidence of his claim that religion is a caricature of obsessive-compulsive neurosis.

To be sure, it is a ritual; and the very nature of ritual is that it must be done “just right.” But that was, of course, Freud’s very point.

Still, Freud was not altogether objective in his critique. Lots of things, not just religion, are done “just right,” including Freud’s own writings which follow very strict canons of scientific research and argument. In the government of Freud’s Vienna, everything followed exact bureaucratic specification. And if Freud had consulted his own physician, lawyer, or accountant, he would have noticed all due attention being paid to detail.

As to ritual, whatever academic conferences Freud attended were nothing, if not ritually determined as to such things as who gave papers to whom; and who responded and how. Indeed, the psychoanalytic method has itself been described as a highly ritualized process. It was not, therefore, ritual that Freud found objectionable so much as it was religion, which he had rejected long before he applied his psychological theory to it. Freud’s commitment to scientific secularism had no room for religion, and as time went on, Freud developed theories that justified his objections.

But Freud was a genius and a doggedly accurate observer of human behavior; he was not, therefore, altogether wrong. Sometimes religious ritual does approximate obsessive-compulsive disorder. An example is the way some medieval Jews interpreted the phrase, “in accordance with all its rules and rites.” The 11th-century rabbi, Joseph Tov Elem (or Bonfils, his French surname), incorporated the line into a pre-Passover synagogue poem that highlighted the importance of attending to every detail of Passover preparation. One verse of that larger composition still concludes our Haggadah: “The Passover celebration has concluded appropriately,” we say, “in accordance with all its rules and rites.”

Bonfils had internalized an attitude that pervaded Christian circles in his day: the idea that religious rites (like baptism and Eucharist) achieve their intended impact as an automatic consequence of punctilious attention to detail. By contrast, skipping a single step or doing anything out of order renders the ritual null and void, so at roughly the same time that Bonfils was writing his poem, other rabbis were developing mnemonics to guide Seder leaders in doing everything “just right.” We still have one such mnemonic today: Kadesh urchatz, by Samuel ben Solomon of Falaise. We chant it as the Seder begins just to anticipate what follows, but originally, it was used to guarantee that the Seder not be rendered worthless on account of an error in order.

In its time, this was indeed an obsessive-compulsive attitude, but it is not typical of the mainstream Jewish approach to ritual over the years. Even “in accordance with all its rules and rites” was interpreted to mean more than an obsessive concern for sacrificial detail. Both Rashi and Ramban, for example, think it also entails linking the ritual acts of the Passover sacrifice to the non-ritual aspects of the Passover message — eating unleavened bread, for instance, as a recollection of the haste with which Jews departed Egypt so long ago. Elsewhere, too, the impact of halachic action is not normally believed to follow magically as a consequence of doing it flawlessly.

Of course we perform our rituals “properly.” Otherwise they would not be rituals. But everything that matters deeply to us gets done that way: arranging an anniversary evening, perfecting a golf swing, posing for an important photograph, creating a beautiful dinner: these are all examples of making sure that details do not get overlooked. Far from being obsessive-compulsive behavior, these are instances of artistic enterprise.

The lesson of it all — from the biblical Passover sacrifice to the Seder of today, and every other ritual we have as well — is that human beings have an artistic impulse at our very core. We describe God’s original act of creation as artistry; and we have been partners with God ever after. We love harmonized melodies, complementary color schemes, matching clothes, flowing language, and even coincidences that suggest patterns behind pure randomness. We should conclude (contra Freud) that while people can use ritual to further their own obsessive-compulsive needs, most of us appreciate it for its artistry — the means to express ourselves through what is graceful, elegant, beautiful, and profound.

Parashat Bo

There is something magic about midnight, as any child who has read “Cinderella” can tell you. It is the witching hour when imagination fails, when radiance turns into pumpkins, when dreams die fast.

Edgar Allen Poe expresses this resonance of despair in his poem, “The Raven,” the tale of a man whose yearning for his lost love Lenore is dashed by a “ghastly grim and ancient raven” who inserts his way into his home “once upon a midnight dreary” with the one-word prophecy, “Nevermore.” Never mind this life; there is also no life after death, no heavenly bliss where the two lovers may someday find one another again. “Is there no balm in Gilead?” asks the man, citing Jeremiah 8:22, no hope whatever? The raven’s answer comes unhesitatingly: “Nevermore.”

Poe’s midnight message chills us to the bone. We have all awakened in the dark and deep of night and thought for sure the nightmares that disturb our sleep are real, that “nevermore” will we find hope, love, health or joy; that a new day will never dawn.

It is around midnight too when the ghost of Hamlet’s murdered father appears; and when Washington Irving’s Headless Horseman visits horror upon unwitting travelers. Nothing good can happen in what we call “the dead of night.”

How interesting, then, to find this week that God chooses “around midnight” for the angel of death to slay Egypt’s first born. From Israel’s perspective, however, this is deliverance, so ever after, Jewish lore associates midnight with good things happening. A traditional Haggadah poem carries the refrain, “It happened about midnight.” At midnight Jacob wrestled with the angel; at midnight Daniel was saved from the lion’s den. Baal Haturim concludes, “The Holy One performs miracles for the righteous — at midnight.”

Christianity too adopted this positive view of midnight. Since God had saved the Israelites then, the New Testament pictured prisoners breaking free from a Roman jail on account of the midnight prayers of Paul and Silas (Acts 16:2); and in 1849, Unitarian minister Edmund Sears wrote the Christmas carol, “It came upon the midnight clear.”

A novel touch arrived with the spread of coffee throughout the Mediterranean in the sixteenth century. With Jews newly wired by heavy doses of Turkish coffee, kabbalistic masters converted midnight hope into ritual, alongside the promise that midnight was especially apt to find God’s presence among us. Mystical adepts would arise at midnight for a tikkun chatsot, a set of readings intended to bringing about a better world.

But kabbalists were building on more ancient lore: Psalm 119:62, which had King David say, “I arise at midnight to thank You.”

One Hundred Great Jewish Books is now available.

One Hundred Great Jewish Books: Three Millennia of Jewish Conversation

One Hundred Great Jewish Books: Three Millennia of Jewish Conversation

I’m happy to announce that my latest book, One Hundred Great Jewish Books, is now available. The full title, One Hundred Great Jewish Books: Three Millennia of Jewish Conversation, reflects an idea I have been playing with for about a decade now. What is Judaism, if not an identity that is portrayed through a rolling conversation across the centuries! The book is a running record of the conversation as portrayed through every variety of Jewish book: classical texts and medieval responsa, but also modern fiction, short stories, histories, biographies, and even comic books, encyclopedias, and cook books. I read over 200 books to make the selection, but here it is at last: my running guide to the Jewish conversational record.

I hope you enjoy it, so we can continue the conversation here.

Time To Go Back To Work

If you google sukkat shalom (“sukkah of peace”), you get hundreds of references, most of them titles of synagogues and lyrics for songs. The synagogue names bespeak a deep-seated desire for places of respite. The song lyrics acknowledge the metaphor’s origin, our nightly synagogue prayer that God “spread over us Your sukkah of peace.”  We call the prayer Hashkiveinu, “Lie us down,” a perfect nighttime meditation for that twilight moment when the daily grind succumbs (we hope) to nightly rest.

Tradition connects this sukkah of peace to Amos, 9:11, God’s promise to “raise up the fallen sukkah of David,” a glorious picture of the end of time when Israel’s travails will have come to an end. The nighttime Hashkiveinu reflects this very “raising up” by following “Lie us down in peace” with, “Raise us up to life.” Here too, it is possible to see a messianic theme, relief from exilic oppression, just as Amos had foreseen.

That can hardly have been the prayer’s original intent, however. It is a mistake to think that even people in the Middle Ages lost much sleep over cataclysmic metaphysical issues like the eventual restoration of the Davidic monarchy and the coming of the messiah. These eschatological metaphors were appealing because they provided ways to ponder the more immediate problems that prey on our minds and rob us of sleep: “disease, violence, want, and agony” (dever, cherev, ra’av  v’yagon), for example. Hashkiveinu was, first and foremost, a bedtime prayer reflecting the hope for a night of peaceful sleep.

Its bedtime image of the sukkah came from the holiday that ends this week. The simple joy of sitting in a sukkah and consuming festive meals in the ambience of nature’s fullness is a perfect antidote to the harried lives we normally pursue. Whether in our nightly prayers or in the temporary booth we call a sukkah, we are invited to pause for inner reflection and outer quietude.

But as we have seen, that is only half the image of Hashkiveinu — and half the image also of the sukkah. Like it or not, “Lie us down in peace” becomes “Raise us up to life.” If “Lie us down in peace” addresses the real nighttimes we endure, then “Raise us up to life” speaks to the real daytimes we confront. A nightly wish for peace is fine, but when morning dawns, we awaken to the real world of work and worry. So too, we should not get too comfortable in our sukkah of peace. Like peace itself, the sukkah is deliberately made to be temporary, a feeble structure that cannot last. When Sukkot ends, we face the autumn preamble to the inevitable blast of winter.

Sukkot peace is not supposed to become soporific, dulling us to the tasks that will follow. We have every right to enjoy a week of languor in the sukkah, but not at the expense of deluding ourselves about what lies beyond it. Words have many opposites, some healthy, some not. An unhealthy opposite to “tranquility” is “anxiety”; a healthy one is “urgency.” When life resumes at the end of this Sukkot week, it should do so with some urgency. Life matters, after all, and life consists of the real world outside the sukkah’s walls. Both peace and struggle are part of the human package; we don’t get one without the other.

Human nature suggests we would prefer evading life’s exigencies. I am not thinking of such immediate challenges as earning a living, confronting sorrow, building relationships, and just plain making it through each day; these impinge so noticeably upon us that we can hardly avoid them (although some of us try to). My concern is the larger issues that we delude ourselves into discounting, if not downright disregarding – the fractures in our country, aging of our Jewish institutions, and dangers to our planet. The life that greets us when the sukkah comes down is not an altogether pretty thing.

Not that we should despair; there is much about the world to celebrate, and celebrate we do, when we emerge from the cocoon of the sukkah for the joy of Simchat Torah; and recollect again how “In the beginning,  God created the heavens and the earth” and found it “good.” As we take up residence in the world outside the sukkah, it is this image of natural and intended goodness that should consume us. When sitting in the sukkah ends, we “rise up to life” in a world whose continued goodness depends on us. The holiday month of Tishri gives way to Cheshvan, a month known best for having no holidays in it at all. It will be time to go back to work.